The Trinity of all Living Systems – A Design Framework for Bioteams. Dr Humberto Maturana and Dr Franciso Varela, 2 Chilean biologist/neuroscientists, in their ground-breaking book “The Tree of Knowledge – The Biological Roots of Human Understanding”  suggest a simple but profound model, represented graphically below, which wonderfully captures the essence of living systems.
This model covers the complete spectrum of living systems – from the smallest organisms and animals through to communities such as social insects right through to advanced human societies. The significant differences in form occur, they argue, not due to different fundamentals but rather due to the vastly differing degrees of ‘autonomy’ of the individual agents which make up these living systems. It is amazing to note that whilst our (naturally occurring) human societies conform to this model the teams we design in our organisations generally do not.
Lets look at the 3 main “cornerstones” of the model of “living systems”, which I have adapted for bioteams:
1. The Self-Organising Network
“What is distinctive about them (living systems), however, is that their organization is such that their only product is themselves, with no separation between the producer and the product. The being and doing of a living system are inseparable, and this is their specific mode of organisation” [1, pp. 48-49]
The outer circle represents two interdependent ideas – the boundary of the living system and the processes and activities which operate within this boundary. The arrow on the circle indicates that the boundary and the processes form a unity – you cannot have one without the other. The processes create the boundary and the boundary provides a space in which the processes can operate. In simple terms the boundary demarks “the being” of the living system and the processes constitute “the doing”. Each living system is totally self-sustaining and produces everything it needs provided the necessary food enters in through the boundary
2. The Networked Nervous System
The inner circle represents the nervous system which is defined as “the system which couples the sensory and motor surfaces of the living system through a network of neurons whose patterns can be quite varied”. Thus the nervous system is a network of connections which enables the living system to respond through movement and other internal processes to triggers in its external environment. Nervous systems are important because they allow the development of language and self-consciousness within the living system. The more sophisticated the nervous system is the more external triggers it can respond to, the more internal states it can sustain and the wider its vocabulary of communications with its external environment.
It is interesting that the term “central nervous system” is in fact something of a misnomer – the nervous systems of all living entities are distributed. At one extreme basic organisms such as a worm have a highly distributed “nervous cord” whilst at the other the human nervous system, although it is most dense in the brain, extends throughout our entire body – otherwise we could not even move!
3. The Communications System
The two half arrows outside the circles represent all forms of 2-way communications between the living system and its external environment. This external environment consists of other living systems and non-living stimuli (e.g. heat, sound, light, chemicals) but living systems don’t differentiate on this basis. Living systems do not “think” in terms of external entities they only react, through the nervous system, to the triggers they are sensitised to receive.
Bioteams are co-evolving living metasystems!
Now where two living systems begin to communicate in a recurrent way they are said to be coupled. In this case two things can happen – one can swallow up the other and they become one (“symbiosis”) or they can start to co-evolve together as a higher level system within which their individual separate identifies are still maintained.
This co-evolution situation is known as a higher order “metasystem” and I contend that a bioteam is a self-organising network, with a networked nervous system and communication system which has started to recurrently and successfully co-evolve into a metasystem with its external environment which includes other teams, organisations and individuals.
These 3 cornerstones should radically change how we think about designing team processes, member roles, behaviours, strategies, tools and enabling technologies.
Towards a design framework for bioteams
Starting from this “Trinity” we have then identified in the table below 15 fundamental bioteam functions. This list, whilst not intended to be exhaustive represents, in our opinion, the beginning of the first-ever framework for the conscious design of the processes, technology and change management needed to create and support successful human bioteams!
A Design Framework for Bioteams
I. The Self Organising Network
IA. The Boundary
1. Identity – what does the team want to be known for?
2. Scale – how big does the team wish to become and what are the “critical masses”?
3. Membership – what are the different types of members and the rules for participation?
4. Energy & Waste – what are the energy/food supplies and how is waste removed?
I. The Self Organising Network
IB. The Self-Generating Network of Processes & Elements
5. What value transformations must the team make to its members to achieve its identity and scale?
6. What processes, practices and roles will be needed to support this?
7. What networks of relationships will be needed and where are there weak links?
8. Have we made the network self-generating in processes, members, boundary and relationships?
II. The Networked Nervous System
9. Who are the other key external living systems the team needs to couple/co-evolve with?
10. What Key external Triggers must the team be sensitive to?
11. What are the simple member rules which will govern the teams internal responses to these triggers and how will they be organised?
12. What are the mechanisms to allow the team to develop new responses to triggers (i.e. learning)?
III. The Communications System
13. How will the team effectively sense its external environment?
14. Communications within the bioteam?
15. Communications (coupling) with other living systems?
Open your mind to a new understanding of “team”!
In the manifesto I provide examples of a number of major characteristics of bioteams. These characteristics are consistent with from the three cornerstones – the Self-Organising Network, the Networked Nervous System and the Communications System. However you will see that it is not possible to allocate or decompose each characteristic neatly into one of the three elements. The three elements form a unity – or rather a trinity – each one cannot exist without the other two!
An important rule of ecosystems may help us in opening our mind to a different way of thinking about teams at this point:
“Higher Level Ecosystems are not easily understood by the living systems which collectively form their components” 
In other words we as team members should not expect to find it totally natural or comfortable to re-understand “team” as teams are higher-level ecosystems of which we ourselves are the component parts!
1. Maturana, H., Varela F., 1992. The Tree of Knowledge – The Biological Basis of Human Understanding, Shambhala
2. Marten, G., 2003 . Human Ecology- Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development, Earthscan, pp. 45ff.
Ken is an expert practitioner, author and speaker on Collaboration, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Business Strategy and Leadership Development.